TV Binge Report: Masters of Sex

I recently caught up on Showtime’s fantastic Masters of Sex, which is currently airing its second season. Masters of Sex is based on the book Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love by Thomas Maier, which is a biography of the famous research team who did revolutionary work on human sexual response. Their findings disproved many prior misconceptions and also paved the way in diagnosing and treating many common sexual dysfunctions. The heart of the show, however, is the incredibly complicated personal relationship between the two main characters, played by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. The real Masters and Johnson became intimate with each other at first under the guise of acting as participants in their own study, but some 25 years later Masters left his wife and married Johnson. The two later divorced after 21 years of marriage.

The pilot of the series takes place in 1956, when Masters and Johnson first meet and begin their study. Up until now, about two-thirds of the way through season 2, four years have elapsed. So far, the show certainly seems to be staying true to the real-life story of the couple, although I would not be surprised if they sped things up a bit moving forward since historical accuracy would require 11 more years to elapse before Masters’ his marriage to Johnson. Whenever a work of entertainment is based on a true story, there is the interesting phenomenon of the viewer usually knowing how it ends. How do you maintain suspense and intrigue? One way is by changing some of the story. Although the portrayal of the relationship between the two main characters and their research work seems to be true to history, many of the supporting characters and minor storylines appear to be works of fiction. Most importantly, though, the actors have created such a compelling dynamic that even though I may be able to guess how it will wind up, I still can’t wait to see how they get there.

For a period piece, Masters of Sex can also be incredibly topical. Masters and Johnson, both the characters and the real-life people, were both radical thinkers for their time. Johnson especially is an incredibly modern woman with modern views on love, sex, and life in general. She is a twice divorced single mother who is very comfortable with her sexuality, and I can think of many TV shows set in the modern-day that don’t feature a woman as progressive. Masters, any unsavory personality traits aside, is a fantastic doctor who is not afraid to go against the grain if it is in his patients’ best interest. In one episode, Masters delivers a baby with ambiguous genitalia. The parents want to raise the child as a female, which was tragically how most of those cases were treated back then. Masters, however, begs the family to reconsider because blood tests show that the child is in fact male. In another episode, Masters refuses to perform a hysterectomy on a young woman who has had multiple abortions and seems to be a sex addict, a condition that had not been identified or diagnosed yet at the time, giving her an early version of an IUD instead.

This show that is set nearly half a century ago is also unfortunately topical in its second season portrayal of race relations in Missouri, where it takes place. I have found this storyline, which primarily involves Masters’ wife Libby (played by Caitlin Fitzgerald), to be troubling, not only because it is horrible that stories about racial violence and hate crimes are still true to life in 2014, but because of what I suspect is the storyline’s intention. The scenes between Libby and Coral (Keke Palmer), her young, African-American nanny, are uncomfortable and difficult-to-watch. Libby is essentially the Betty Draper of Masters of Sex, although, I would argue, a bit more one-dimensional (it could also be argued that Masters is not dissimilar to Don Draper, considering he excels at his job but fails spectacularly in his personal life, and Virginia’s attitudes are not unlike those of one Peggy Olson…but I digress). There is a scene where Libby forcibly shampoos Coral’s hair because she is convinced the lice found in her son’s hair must have come from her. Libby’s disconcerting, racist behavior began just as Masters’ affair with Virginia was heating up, and made me fear that they were vilifying Libby in an attempt to excuse her husband’s behavior and make him a more sympathetic character. This appears to have taken a turn, though, because Libby seems to be learning from her behavior and possibly beginning to see things in a new light after witnessing an unrelated hate crime.

Season two started out very strong, and episode 3, entitled “Fight”, is, in my opinion, the best episode of the series to date and also one of the most outstanding episodes of television I have seen this year. It is a classic bottle episode, and most of the hour is just the two main characters alone in a hotel room. It is incredibly well-written and well-acted and unfolds like a play. It was truly stunning to watch. After this high point, however, I felt the season began to meander a bit. There were two pretty drastic, slightly baffling time jumps within one episode, and the supporting cast is constantly changing, which can be frustrating when compelling characters disappear. One of the most riveting and critically praised storylines of season one focused on Barton Scully, the provost of Washington University, where Masters and Johnson’s sex study begins, and his family. Allison Janney recently won a very well-deserved Guest Actress Emmy for her heartbreaking portrayal of his wife, Margaret. Their storyline vanished from the show after a rather dramatic climax (pun intended), and although I understand from a storytelling point of view, I miss those characters. Season 2 has definitely brought some exciting new supporting characters into the mix to replace them, though. Breaking Bad‘s Betsy Brandt is playing Masters’ new secretary, who also struggles with sexual dysfunction, and Christian Borle (an accomplished Tony-winning theater actor, but most recently of Smash fame) is playing Masters’ estranged brother. This show is generally very kind to theater actors. Annaleigh Ashford was promoted to series regular for season two after a recurring stint on season one, and Helene Yorke had a charming turn in the first season and played another character who was faded out that I now miss.

For a premium cable show with ‘sex’ in the title, yes, it is raunchy. There is copious (female) nudity, and little is left to the imagination in the scenes where Masters and Johnson observe people performing sex acts as part of their study. I am not generally a fan of gratuitous nudity on television, but something about the way it is done on this show doesn’t bother me as much. These scientists did actually observe naked humans performing sex acts. They did have sex with each other, quite regularly. Do I think that no matter its purpose, the critical part played by nudity was a draw to a network like Showtime? Absolutely. But it is also a rare example of nudity being an integral part of the story. It is worth noting that the showrunner, Michelle Ashford, is female, as is the majority of the writing staff. Whether or not it’s a fair assessment, to me it lends the female nudity some credence when it is being written by women rather than by the men behind Game of Thrones. Overall, Masters of Sex is an incredibly intelligent show anchored by two exquisite, understated performances. Even if we already know how it all turns out, I still can’t wait to watch it unfold.


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